By Fr. Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP
DSPT Alumnus, 2006
The Thomist tradition that lies at the heart of the DSPT identity is over 700 years old. The vibrancy of this age-old school of thought was evident in Warsaw, Poland in early July. Over seventy Dominican friars gathered there for a three-day conference, entitled Dominicans and the Challenge of Thomism . The brethren, most of them young, came from Canada, the USA, Nigeria, Ireland, Great Britain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, the Ukraine, Poland, Australia, Vietnam and Taiwan. Four DSPT professors and two alumni (pictured below) were among the participants: Fr. Richard Schenk, OP, Fr. Michael Sherwin, OP, Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP, Fr. Michael Dodds, OP, Fr. Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP, and Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, OP.
To lay the groundwork, several Dominicans shared their historical insights on the thought of Aquinas. Prof. Kromholtz explained how Aquinas's understanding of the resurrection of the body at the end of time has a strong communal element and so can help us to overcome excessively individualistic notions of the afterlife. Other professors passed on the fruit of their research on Aquinas as interpreter of the Bible, the Church Fathers and Aristotle.
A second set of presentations focused on the interface between philosophy and natural science. Prof. Dodds offered insights on how an Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of divine action is surprisingly compatible with contemporary physics. Too many thinkers conceptualize God as competing with the activity of creatures, as if God were one cause among many, instead of recognizing the difference between divine and creaturely activity. But recent developments in quantum mechanics, big bang theory and evolutionary biology employ notions of causality not unlike those of Aristotle, and could thus be synthesized with the metaphysics of Aquinas as well.
A large number of presentations were devoted to ethics. The theologian of the papal household, Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP proposed a variety of philosophical and theological approaches to engaging contemporary ethical debates in a secular setting, with a special focus on the Sermon on the Mount. Paradoxically, a Christian understanding of various moral issues might be most appealing to non-believers when ethical discourse appeals not just to philosophical principles accessible to all, but also to Christ's most famous sermon. Former DSPT professor and alumnus Fr. Michael Sherwin, OP, now on the faculty of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, showcased the return of Aristotelian virtue ethics in Anglo-Saxon philosophy. Many non-Christian philosophers are intensely interested in the Aristotelian philosophical tradition that also lies at the heart of Thomistic ethics, a source of great hope. Fr. Sherwin also pointed out the potential pitfalls of completely separating the study of the virtues from infused virtues, i.e. from theology, as sometimes occurs.
A major sub-theme of the conference was Thomism as a “perennial philosophy.” DSPT Professor Fr. Ramelow proposed that Thomistic philosophy should not be identified with perennial philosophy, but rather be defined as a species therein. In the perennial quest for truth, Thomism distinguishes itself by its roots in the thought of Aquinas and by entering into conversation with other philosophical schools, the natural sciences, and theology. A Thomism restricted to what Aquinas said would quickly become sterile. Like Aristotle's (but not Plato's) substantial forms, timeless truths are concretized in various instantiations, from Platonic texts to contemporary theories of language. Hence, immersion in the philosophical classics of the past and the debates of the present helps Thomistic philosophy in its quest to understand more fully its object of study: being as being.
Another set of presentations highlighted the work of various schools of theology, academic institutes and journals dedicated to promoting the Thomist tradition. Here, three endeavors especially stood out. First, the director of the Leonine Commission previewed forth-coming publications and explained some standards of textual critique. The Commission consists of Dominican friars and lay historians (under the direction of the Dominican Order) who produce the critical edition of Thomas' works. Second, a Polish Dominican introduced the founding of the first Thomistic Institute in Mainland China, including its project of translating Aquinas' Summa Theologiae into Chinese. Third, Prof. Schenk's presentation of the DSPT highlighted two characteristics of the school that may be quite rare among Thomistic institutions of higher learning: its ecumenical mission (as a member of the GTU) and the opportunity of its philosophy students to benefit simultaneously from both the DSPT Thomistic faculty of philosophers and the resources of a world-class philosophy department at a major public university (UC Berkeley).
The event concluded with a Sunday Mass preached by Fr. Giertych. In his homily, he noted that formators of future Church leaders often appreciate a Dominican Thomistic education because it does not simply impart a set of theological opinions but a consistent way of deepening one's understanding of the faith with the mind of the Church. In other words, when religious brothers and sisters, seminarians and lay students begin to think about their faith with the philosophical tools and theological principles of a long-standing, living tradition, they acquire the ability to pass on the faith of the Church, rather than their private convictions or the latest intellectual fad.
The conference promises to bear much fruit as its participants collaborate more closely in future teaching, research and publishing endeavors. A more tightly-knit global network of Thomistic philosophers and theologians, including those of the DSPT, can also help to answer more effectively the spiritual challenges and crises of our global age.
Audio recordings of conference presentations (most of them in English, some in French) are available at www.it.dominikanie.pl/warsawconference/
Listen to Fr. Michael Dodd's presentation, Unlocking Divine Action: Thomas Aquinas and Contemporary Science (scroll to the middle of the page).
Listen to Fr. Bryan Kromholtz's presentation, The Communal Dimension of Thomas’s Eschatology (scroll to the bottom of the page).
Listen to Fr. Bernhard Blankenhorn's presentation, Dionysian Mysticism in the Early Albertus Magnus and in Thomas Aquinas (scroll to bottom of the page).